Rivalry defines the very best bike racing. Fuelled by the passionate allegiances of spectators and media, the great head-to-head battles of cycling transcend the sport. Rapha presents Rivals, three limited edition collections, with this first Belgium kit paying tribute to the duels between two of the country’s toughest riders, a story that went way beyond the bike.
By Susannah Osborne
For Roger De Vlaeminck and Eddy Merckx (Rog and Edd), both Belgian but from opposite sides of a deep cultural divide, it was a duel that was played out over nine years, between 1969 and 1978. The stage for their theatrics was the one-day races, the eminent Classics which became known as the ‘Monuments’. Held in their homeland, the heartland of cycling, over raw, hellish, testing terrain, in weather often foul, these great races - the Tour of Flanders, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Paris-Roubaix - remain more than just cycling spectacles; they are a lesson in the fierce regional identities and subculture and that makes Belgians tick.Continue Reading »
It was 1969 and Merckx, four years a professional, had shown himself to be a natural champion. Racing himself to glory time and time again, this was a man who rode la course en tête - from the front with will and power. His all-consuming desire to win had been captured by a young girl, the daughter of his former Peugeot teammate, Christian Raymond, who had called him, “a Cannibal”. It stuck.
French-speaking Merckx, with his Elvis quiff and Mod sideburns, won almost 500 races in his 13-year career. The most prolific of winners, he excelled time and time again and was rarely matched. Yet despite his colossal haul of wins Merckx had a thorn in his side; he was Walloon not Flandrian, he spoke French before he spoke Flemish (although he could speak both) and it was a red rooster, not a black lion on a yellow flag that represented his community. It was these niggling facts that, in a country where cycling amounts to a national sport and regional patriotism defines a divided society, made him vulnerable to attack. And it was a fellow Belgian, from Eeklo in West Flanders on the other side of that subdivide, who was intent on attacking him.
Roger De Vlaeminck was a thoroughbred Flandrian - a deep-set, hulk of a man, with a barrelling chest and solid legs. He was a gritty, fierce rider who was rumoured to take in 400km training rides and who appeared to care little for Merckx’s historical form. In fact, De Vlaeminck was so blinded by his Flemish allegiances that he had previously thrown the prestigious offer of a place in his rival’s Faema team back in Merckx’s face, allegedly saying “No. I don’t want to ride with you. I want to ride against you.”
Dubbed The Gypsy, on account of his family’s foray into travelling sales, Roger De Vlaeminck was young, confident and had a string of successes in his first year as a pro including fifth at Paris-Roubaix, a race that he would come to own (De Vlaeminck was known as Mr Paris-Roubaix – he won four editions to Merckx’s three). His rivalry with Merckx intensified after the 1970 edition of the Hell of the North; in a lead group of three, with 30km left of the race De Vlaeminck punctured. Merckx took the opportunity and accelerated away gaining a five-minute lead and taking the win, infuriating his fellow Belgian who allegedly told journalists, “Next Sunday, at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Merckx won’t drop me. That I promise.”
It was a promise that the Flandrian went on to keep, fuelling the fire for what would be nearly a decade of bitter rivalry that appealed to the public and the media alike, much of it taking place on the rain-soaked, mud-strewn pavé of northern Europe. Two ferocious Belgian riders, intent on destroying each other on the bike, yet so very different off it - Merckx was quiet, calm and docile, De Vlaeminck a stylish actor with a desire to be heard. This remarkable contest is now ingrained in cycling’s history, two legends whose abilities on the bike still transcend the generations, yet no one clear victor, unless of course you’re Flandrian.
* Rapha read Daniel Friebe’s ‘Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal’, William Fotheringham’s ‘Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike’, and Peter Cossins’ ‘The Monuments’ while researching this article.